Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Terrorist Threat Markup Language, part 2: The Blame Game and Semantic Illiteracy

The news about the poor information quality in the "terrorist threat" database of the Department of Homeland Security is producing the expected fallout. States like New York that complied with the specifications and submitted carefully-prepared lists of plausible targets -- and got stiffed as a result when DHS passed out funds -- are complaining about that. And of course, states like Indiana, whose list includes a popcorn factory, a petting zoo and a flea market -- are trying to justify why they deserve disproportionate shares of funds to protect against terrorist acts.

But what interests me is that both New York and Indiana are saying the same thing, and they're both wrong. As I pointed out in my previous post, the DHS provided state and local officials with "Guidelines for Identifying National Level Critical Infrastructure and Key Resources" that included detailed definitions, classification criteria, and requirements for how to describe each asset.

Nevertheless, Rep. Caroline Maloney,a New York congresswoman complained on National Public Radio that the threat database shows her state with only two percent of the nation's banking and financial assets, somewhere between North Dakota and Missouri. Her explanation:

"It appears not to have any standards or definitions of what should be on this list."

And likewise, Peter Beering, Indianapolis "terrorism preparedness coordinator"
blames federal officials
for not defining what assets should be protected:

"If you can't define it, if we can't agree on the definition of what a thing is, then we will never be able to count how many we should be worried about."

Another Indianan, Pam Bright (spokeswoman for Indiana's homeland security department), also blames the feds for Indiana’s inclusion of petting zoos and flea markets:

"I don't think there was a clarification as to what assets were, so every state had a different version of what they were supposed to submit."

I can understand why Congresswoman Maloney and other New Yorkers think they got ripped off because the DHS didn't have any rules, but there WERE rules (see Appendices D and E in the already-infamous report)-- they just didn’t enforce them. And the Indiana folks are clearly suffering from semantic illiteracy. They must have convinced themselves that they had a sensible definition of "terrorist threat" when they submitted their lists, and just couldn't imagine that other people might understand it a different way.

The only other possible explanation is that out in Indiana they were scheming to get an unfair amount of taxpayer money from the Homeland Security pork barrel, and that just wouldn't be fair.

-Bob Glushko

thank you for your voice of sanity in the wilderness. We don't need finger pointing....we need "context" and "what's next".
So refreshing!

Somewhere, deep down at the bottom of a box, I have a copy of an article about how good documentation helps, and how skilled technical writers are actually an asset, even though both are a pain in the butt.

Not 60 seconds ago, in an OpenSource collaboration project, I had to explain "I don't mean to be straining at gnats here but eventually all those gnats form a wad big enough to choke a camel."

I came up with 4 Cs: correct, comprehensive, complete, and current ... if the sytem matters then the data matters.

I gotta find that ...
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